Big Design Small Screen — Four Rules of the Mobile Persona

Personas are extraordinarily tools, but are truly only as good as the data used or the insight of the person creating them; and only as useful as the interpretation and empathy of the designer using them.

When designing for mobile, there are a myriad of implicit contextual cues that go into shaping a proper persona. I’ll get into tactics for creating a good mobile persona soon, first I want to put a few basic rules out there, things I’ve seen done before which hinder a mobile project greatly.

Some rules are true for all personas, but seem to be amplified for mobile.

A mobile persona can be a tricky thing to work into a design method. It’s generally an assumed person as everyone has a phone, and entering the app market has such a low barrier.

I’ve seen a lot of very successful apps who’s entire persona description is “Anyone with $2” (Hello to the entire Android marketplace).

How we treat our personas is equal to the way we will treat our customers, so any exercise into persona development is worth the effort, even if it’s informal and not part of a structured product cycle.

Side Note: I call them personas, not personae, and don’t care to debate one over the other. If you’re overly concerned with what to call them, you’re probably building shitty ones.

Thou Shalt Not Use Marketing Personas for Mobile

The marketing persona has always depicted the crowd as less than human, despite being the tool typically used to put a human face on a group of people with similar traits.

Marketing personas are written from the point of view of a predator seeking prey. They are rarely friendly and tend to divide people across demographic boundaries more than ethnographic or technographic.

I find the language typically used to be horrible: “We’ve selected our primary targets. We believe they’ll be susceptible to our message. One exposure should convert them, with multiple exposures ensuring they begin conversion of their friends and family.”

In other words, we’re looking for the weak spirited and easily led people who will transmit the pox to others they know.

Before advertising, this language was the domain of psychopaths and serial killers.

I’ve seen time and time again, the same tactics of marketing persona creation being used for mobile.

As a mobile product designer, I want to attract people with design, features and amazement. My personas are based on people who have a need or will find enjoyment or relief from a stressful situation. I use words like attract and joy and successful interaction.

In mobile, I’m looking for the right people. There is a “Target Market” but it’s rarely based on demographics or trends. The right people I try to locate are typically the ones who I know will find value in what I’m creating, with any word-of-mouth being based on positive experience rather than perceived experience.

Thou Shalt Not Create Transferred Ego Personas

Every time I see one, I can only think of Admiral Akbar saying “It’s a Trap!”

The Transferred Ego persona is a remarkable piece of fiction that is substantiated by a small chart showing statistical information.

These personas have little connection to reality other than using a stock photo you’ve seen before.

Having worked in agencies, development shops, research groups and start ups, I’ve seen two variations used over and over.

The first is the Aspirational Target, a horrible exaggeration of any demographic data the strategist has managed to scrape together.

It’s someone like “Bob” a perfect father figure who does DIY projects and drinks American beer. He makes a lot of money, loves his family and that stuff you’re designing? He would really be into something like that.

I’m going to put this out there: there’s nothing worse than a digital strategist with daddy issues.

The other persona is the Superman. This persona usually resembles the person who created it, if that person was cast as Neo from the Matrix, filtered through Bruce Springsteen with a dash of hipster cool and was played in the movie by Mos Def.

It’s the persona that few people argue with because they see an idealized concept of themselves reflected in some bizarre multi-cultural zen mode. I’ve heard the phrase “Well, we’re all users, too” uttered far too many times in meetings when the Superman is presented.


Zen plumbers and family men who don’t have drinking problems and gracious moms who help organize neighborhood events and tech savvy grandpas who love connecting with Korea vets through you new Facebook app.

It’s good to be aspirational, it’s not so good when you rely on fiction to hoist your design.

It’s rare to see a realistic persona that reflects the averages or even lower end of an expected user group. I can honestly say I’ve never seen a persona showing a hefty fellow who’s wearing his pants for the third day in a row, has an off-brand Android phone that he likes but really doesn’t give a shit about, and has no brand preference other than the puffy cheese doodles, not the crunchy ones.

There are real users, it’s just easy to ignore them.

Thou Shalt Not Create Yes Men

Personas were intended to be people we could have empathy for and relate to both for ourselves and to describe to our clients. They were the soundboard against which our ideas would be validated.

It’s very important to not let this get turned around. It’s common to see a team spend a lot of effort rationalizing how Lisa, the active mom, would really our app that organizes her pet’s schedules and offers pet food discounts based on her typical dog walking route.

If they don’t ever say “no,” if they are never disinterested in what you’re designing, the persona is a useless artifact, created to satisfy a client or a line item in a project plan.

It’s quite realistic to believe that your app or site is going to be useful, and therefore should be designed thoughtfully, but it’s probably not going to change everyone’s life. Most of your users will be mostly passive, It’s a horrible truth we deny every day.

So let’s be realistic about our expectations. Would you rather design for a million passive users or 50,000 active ones?

It’s a totally different equation, but it’s the foundation of deciding upon an audience.

Sometimes the answer is “yes, I want all the people” but when we are attempting something remarkable, the answer is usually a resounding “NO, I want the right people.”

(Note the peeps saying the want the right people are likely to change their story once they either make some money or run out of money).

Mobile personas usually fail to account for time. Time a user has mentally allotted for a task, acceptable time for interactions, time a user will spend on an action that is both arbitrary and random, as all our apps are.

Does your persona ever tell you they don’t have time for something you’re designing? Do they ever tell you how disinterested they might be?

They should be.

Thy Personas Shall Not Replace Design Experience

What does a mobile designer do for a living? They open a window, see a quick glimpse of the future and find a path to that specific vision.

Many times this vision will go against what’s current; trends and expectations being what they are. In many cases, personas are no help. Personas are information collected about yesterday. Yes, all personas, no matter how well defined or accurate, are a portrayal of a human that exists in a frozen state.

They’re not much use with matters of the future unless we fictionalize or interpret on their behalf.

Conversely, many expect a designer to be tied to the voice of a persona. A persona may be viewed as the authority in a given situation, denying the designer to state their beliefs unless by proxy.

I’m sure many of us have been faced with the j’accuse: “Well, that’s your opinion.”

Many times we may use a persona to deflect this line of thought as: “Susie, our mom persona, would certainly feel this was a good feature.”

Typically when someone says “Well, that’s your opinion” I’m happy to say “Yes it is, and in this regard, I’m the one who’s opinion matters.”

As designers we’re trusted to have well-directed opinions and make decisions on behalf of those who cannot.

Personas are essential tools for understanding the motivations and expectations of a possible audience, but they are purely a representative ideal. Don’t let the personas keep a good design from being a remarkable one.

As I talked about before, there is no shortage of people with phones out in the world. Any real persona has to have components of observed behavior.

Any efforts towards persona development require designers to get out in the world and watch people use their phones.

Next time, I’ll show some methods I’ve used to develop a useful mobile persona that’s based on experience and observation with a sharper focus on task completion and user joy.

Big Design, Small Screen is a series of articles on conceptual design for mobile devices.

Next Up: Creating a Mobile Persona

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